New Year, old beginnings …

2 Jan

Like many parents, I’m sure, I read Jess Phillips’ piece in the papers on New Year’s Eve with a feeling of recognition.  She wrote very evocatively about the early days of parenting in winter.  Her baby was in the night feeding stage as Christmas came, meaning that the effort to stay warm when woken in the pre-dawn hours was paramount. Bundled up with a baby in blankets on the sofa, the world shrinks to a milky bubble.  It took me right back to the strange half-lit half-life of the first few weeks with my own two children, but with two important contrasts.  My firstborn arrived in summer, and therefore the struggle was not how to stay warm in the darkness, but rather how to keep cool enough… and I did not manage to learn from my experience, as my second child was also born in the holiday season.   As another year comes around it’s a time to reflect on past and future, and I found myself transported back to that time of muslin cloths and weak sunlight: the seemingly endless weeks in the not-quite-daylight, nursing newborns….

My first birth did not proceed to plan, so we were in hospital for several days.  It was already warm outside.  I remember holding my new baby up to a mirror as the scent of gifts of flowers hung cloyingly around us, and the noise of the city from the street below was like something from another world.  When we got home, it was one of the hottest weekends for years, and I was fixated on the card thermometer in the bedroom which, even in early hours, struggled to stay in the green hues of the ‘comfortable’ zone.  As my son fed, in his little vest, I worried that he was getting too red from shared heat as he lay in my arms.  I would settle him under a muslin square as we saw the night hours through listening to the radio – the World Service still makes me think of babies.   Our bedroom then was painted blue, and as the rising summer sun filtered through the curtains and played on the walls, it was almost like being in a fish tank – the glimmer made it hard to get fully asleep again.

When my second baby was born, it was already high summer, and I remember particularly taking her on an early outing, after a few weeks back in the fish tank.  We were off to the suburbs to spend a day with relatives in their garden.   I was pleased to be getting away from our street where the buildings reflected heat off each other to make things even more oppressive – just my luck that this turned out to be among the hottest days on record in the UK.  I was concerned that the baby would get overheated and distressed in unfamiliar surroundings.  In fact, we set her in the shade at lunchtime, and she just slept, and slept, completely peaceful all that long hot day.  She woke in the late afternoon, and as soon as we got home it was a clear that it would be another very broken night.  With a cooling fan droning past us, we somehow got through, stickily, to the other side …

Those, hazy, hallucinatory days of summer sleeplessness taught me a great deal about babies’ resilience, and about keeping going… This New Year, my children are both teenagers, full of lives of their own, and the challenges are rather different. But even at this distance, reading about the cocoon of early parenthood brings it all back. The long nights of early child rearing are a kind of a time capsule – although deeply buried, you can always revisit them.  It’s a phase that does pass – often with relief –  but it is also somehow indelible.  A season in life, no matter what time of year it happens.





Shutting the door on 2017

18 Dec

A couple of weeks ago I read about a charity initiative to start a ‘reverse advent calendar’ – a great idea for donating food and household supplies to foodbanks. Instead of receiving a little gift from behind the date on your calendar each day, you pick something you can give away daily, and then pass your collection on to your local foodbank, to help people in need over Christmas.

I’ve always enjoyed the build-up to Christmas, so the concept of ‘reversing’ the calendar appealed to me.  I’m also old enough to remember when the excitement of advent calendars was simply in finding a new picture behind the flap – which star-strewn image would be revealed? Which winter wonderland would I enter today? This led me to think about another way of reversing the calendar. Instead of opening a door into a colourful new world, what would you like to shut the door on and put behind you, each day?

2017 has been another turbulent year, so the nominations come thick and fast.  Here are some suggestions from me, feel free to add your own …


I’d like to shut the door on:  Silencing women

It’s been a big year for women speaking out.  From the Women’s March following Trump’s inauguration, to the new openness in discussions of sexual harassment following the revelations about Harvey Weinstein, it has been a time for hearing long-neglected women’s voices. The tide turned sufficiently for Time magazine to name the ‘Silence breakers’, the women who spoke out about sexual harassment, as their Person(s) of the year.  But as Mary Beard reminds us, silencing  women has deep roots in our culture, with women in the public sphere facing constant pressures to shut up. Let’s keep talking.


I’d like to shut the door on: Non-apologies

2017 has proved a masterclass in the public utterances of ‘sorry not sorry’.  In response to revelations of sexual harassment, many high-profile men have abjectly failed to apologise properly. It’s nicely summed up in this piece for Vox. My own favourite example is Louis C.K.’s notion that he was ‘so admired’ that he didn’t realise that asking first didn’t make showing his private parts to colleagues ok ….


I’d like to shut the door on: Threatening language in politics

The Brexit juggernaut has rumbled on this year, with divisions of opinion running to the top of our political parties.  In the midst of heated debate, the atmosphere has sometimes turned nasty.  There have been headlines calling judges ‘enemies of the people’ and Conservative rebels ‘mutineers’.  Most recently, the vote to give parliament a meaningful say on the outcome of negotiations with the EU, has resulted in MPs being termed ‘traitors’.  Members of both the main political parties have now seen demands for de-selection from other members of their own parties.

The essence of a strong democracy is being able to express opposing views and argue the case in a civilised manner. Labelling those you disagree with stupid or ignorant, or worse, sliding into threatening discourse, does not help. In 2018 let’s have some calm.


I’d like to shut the door on: Fixing women, not systems

2017 has seen the gender pay gap highlighted as an issue, and gender inequality in sectors such as broadcasting and technology brought to the fore.  As the inequities in these industries have been exposed, there’s also been a repetition of arguments around how women’s ‘choices’ explain differences in outcomes between the sexes.

A fine example came up this week, in reporting of a study which apparently found that teenage girls aimed for lower-paying jobs than boys, so that girls’ aspirations were perpetuating the pay gap. This analysis pays no attention to the social forces underlying occupational choices, nor to lesser value often attached to ‘feminine’ or female-dominated jobs, irrespective of the actual skills and knowledge required to carry them out.

Meanwhile, in Silicon Valley it’s been a year of reckoning for gender inequality in technology. The infamous ‘Google memo’ (which I blogged about here) kickstarted the ongoing debate around diversity in tech, and the widespread failure of tech companies to recruit, retain and promote female and non-white staff.  Many voices support the notion that cultural issues in the sector are deep-rooted, and affect women and minorities at all stages of their career, rather than resulting simply from life choices such as area of study, or having children.  Issues of unconscious bias also affect investment decisions amongst venture capitalists who fund tech start-ups as shown here.

It’s time to address structural and cultural factors underlying inequality, rather than focussing relentlessly on individuals.


I’d like to shut the door on: Bad awards choices

I seemed to spend half of 2016 discussing poor choices in award winners (e.g. here and here) so I was hoping for better form this year.  2017 may indeed have risen above the dubiousness of making Bono a ‘Woman of the Year’ as really did occur last year, but at the close of play we have another clanger.  It’s been announced that Oxford Dictionaries has declared ‘youthquake’ Word of the Year. This news has attracted some raised eyebrows, as few would identify it as a commonly used piece of vocabulary. The rationale seems to be that usage did increase this year, and that it’s a ‘hopeful’ word in uncertain times.  Hmmm… a word that few use, to describe something that hasn’t quite happened – perhaps that sums up 2017 after all….


As someone who shares a house with teenagers can I also suggest that slamming doors becomes a thing of the past?   May the door of 2017 now close peacefully behind you.



David Davis’s Imagination (with apologies to Willy Wonka)

6 Dec

Hold a referendum

Make a wish

Count to three….


Come with me

And you’ll be

In a world of

Pure imagination

Take a look

And you’ll see

Into my imagination


We’ll begin

With some spin

Traveling in

The Brexit of my creation

What we’ll see

Will defy

Any quantitative explanation


If you want to view sectoral impact

Simply look around and view it

Anything you want to, do it

Wanta change the rules?

There’s nothing

To it


There is no

Brexit I know

To compare with

My imagination

Living there

You’ll be free

If you truly wish to be


If you want to view sectoral impact

Simply look around and view it

Anything you want to, do it

Wanta change the rules?

There’s nothing

To it


There is no

Brexit I know

To compare with

My imagination

Living there

You’ll be free

If you truly

Wish to be



Ushering in change…

18 Nov

It’s hard to think of an instance where shutting a door in a woman’s face represents progress, but in this week’s appointment of the first female Black Rod, we have one.  Every year Black Rod comes to public attention as part of the ceremony attached to the presentation of the Queen’s Speech to Parliament.  In accordance with tradition – representing the independence of the Commons from the monarchy – Black Rod arrives at the doors to the House of Commons, and is symbolically snubbed: the door is slammed shut, and Black Rod must knock three times with a lion-topped, ebony staff, in order for the door to be opened. MPs then accept the invitation to move to the House of Lords and hear the speech.

But the job has a wider remit than that.  Black Rod is essentially a kind of CEO of the House of Lords, and has the accompanying title of ‘Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod’. As the first woman to occupy the role in over 650 years, Sarah Clarke is to be styled ‘Lady Usher’ when she takes up her post early next year.  Historically, Black Rod has often been a military man, as was the current incumbent, David Leakey. Sarah Clarke’s background is more one of military precision – the kind required to organise Wimbledon, or to be a major cog in putting on the London Olympics.  Such a background seems suitable as it involves dealing with the needs of Royals, high-status professionals, and the public.  Among the many duties of Black Rod, is responsibility for the royal areas of parliament, such as the robing room, and organising the State visits of foreign luminaries.  Black Rod also has a meaty security portfolio, including major incident response and contingency planning, should the House of Lords become unusable.  As Big Ben stands covered in controversy-generating scaffolding, and the plans for renovation of parliament remain undecided and yet urgently required, this might become a more high-profile aspect of the job.

There are those who might say that Black Rod represents exactly the kind of anachronistic flummery Britain could well do without. But as the Republic seems some way off, and we have a surfeit of constitutional issues to resolve over the next few years as the UK leaves the EU, perhaps there is a little consolation in knowing that Black Rod’s duty of ‘fostering diversity and inclusion’ in the House of Lords will at last be performed by a woman…

Many happy returns?

10 Oct

Two policies aimed at narrowing the gender gap in earning and caring have recently attracted attention.  The first, shared parental leave, introduced 2 years ago, has been up for assessment of take-up and impact; the second, a government scheme to encourage returners to public sector professions, was unveiled at the end of the summer.

These two eye-catching initiatives share an important underlying feature: they are operating on shoestring budgets.  Shared Parental Leave – which was touted as a response to ‘Edwardian’ patterns of division of labour –  ended up as a scheme where the government’s own estimates of take-up ran at an underwhelming 2-8% of fathers.  In fact, research conducted since its introduction, indicates that take-up may be even lower – one recently quoted survey in the Guardian found fewer than 1 in 1000 employees had taken Shared Parental Leave; it’s reckoned that fewer than 9000 fathers took it up in the year to March 2017.  Set against 695,000 births per year, progress is slow indeed.

So, what are the reasons for low take-up? Shared parental leave is, in fact, a system of transfer of mothers’ maternity leave to fathers, rather than an independent entitlement for men. It therefore excludes many families where women are not entitled to maternity leave.  Next there’s the crucial issue of pay: while many employers provide enhanced maternity leave packages, Shared Parental Leave is paid at a Statutory Maternity Pay levels – currently around £140 per week.  This contrasts with more widely used schemes overseas, where men have an individual entitlement to leave, and payment is set at a generous fraction of actual wages.  As we still live in a world where many fathers are chief wage earners in families, few can afford the loss of income inherent in the British system. Thirdly, there’s the culture thing: taking leave is often viewed as a threat to future promotion prospects, and so men are often reluctant to volunteer for it. The cynic might say, that having seen what happens to many women’s careers, who can blame them? …

This brings us to initiative number two – the government’s new schemes for people who have taken time out of the workplace.   Five million pounds have been pledged to cover three public sector professions: social work, the civil service, and allied health professions (e.g. paramedics, speech therapists and radiographers).  This amounts to 100 places for returners to social work, 50 for civil servants, and 300 returnships for allied health professions.  As somewhere in excess of half a million people work in these areas, this seems something of a drop in the ocean. In the private sector, returnship programmes are becoming more popular, and the government is currently consulting further on these.

These initiatives accompany high employment rates for mothers, and three-quarters of economically inactive mothers say that they would like to return to work.  As ever, mothers of the youngest children are least likely to be employed, so sharing care in the early years is likely to be key to women’s future progression in employment, and also opens up the possibility of men doing more caring work.  With around half of younger fathers saying that they would like a less stressful job, or that they would be prepared to take a pay cut in order to contribute more at home, governments should be thinking creatively about re-balancing the workforce to improve life for parents and children alike.  But creative thinking is not enough. In a climate of wage stagnation and economic uncertainty, statutory pay levels are too low to be a feasible option for many parents contemplating shared leave; and returnships will only be transformational for carers when they are both more widely available, and less associated with the ‘mummy track’.  In fairness to the government, they have made their returner schemes open to men as well as women, but given the current imbalances in who takes time off, this may be a bit cart before horse.

The frustrating thing in all this, is that lack of transformational change is entirely predictable: on Shared Parental Leave, policy experts and civil society groups explained that without dedicated periods of leave for fathers and adequate rates of pay, the scheme would fail to take off; and while returnships are welcome to reincorporate skilled women into work, they will also fail to make major headway if they are not accompanied by wider efforts to prevent mothers from falling out of the workforce in the first place.

Again and again, flexible working arrangements have been found to be vital in retaining parents in the workforce, and to job satisfaction.  While there may be reluctance to commit major resources to these issues, the evidence shows that investment often has good returns. Homeworking and flexible working may raise productivity, and can reduce costs by enhancing staff retention rates. In Scandinavia, it has been found that the more months of leave fathers take, the higher the subsequent earnings for their partners.  The Economist reported this week that a German policy to provide a right to kindergarten places was 60% paid for by the taxes of women returners – and of course these women are likely go on paying taxes throughout their lives.  If our government could actually commit to proper investment in a more equal workforce (as well as in the childcare sector which is currently suffering from under-investment in the flagship 30 hours free childcare scheme) returning to work might generate the kind of monetary returns the economy currently needs.  You could call it a realist’s money tree.



Political shorthand – for men?

30 Sep

I’ve been intrigued by a conversation on Twitter about ‘Centrist Mum’.  If you’re politically inclined, you’d have to have been out of the country/under a rock not to have heard of the term ‘Centrist Dad’ which reached peak public awareness during the Labour Party Conference last week.  So who is ‘Centrist Dad’, and why, as in the online conversation, is there no apparent female equivalent?


Well, the ‘Centrist Dad’ label grew up in the Corbyn-inspired (younger) Left to describe the kind of (older) man who is not happy about the contemporary direction of the Labour Party.  Not only is he not happy, he takes it upon himself to speak up about it, and to provide Corbyn supporters (especially younger women) with the benefit of his experience.  The essence of ‘Centrist Dad’ is summed up here, where commentators point out that ‘condescension’ is a key element of the brand:  middle-aged men endeavouring to impose their opinions on the young. The article also points out that 25-44 year olds (a key parenting age group) are more likely to vote Labour than older age groups, and that women in this age bracket are even more likely to vote Labour than men.  Meanwhile, older age groups are more likely to vote Tory, and this piece shows how some Labour-voting children in their twenties and thirties converted their more right-wing mothers to Labour in the General Election.  I looked for a Dad equivalent, but have not found one*….


So, perhaps ‘Centrist Mum’ hasn’t caught on because Corbyn has a greater female following, and fewer women are in fact on the right of the Labour party (though of course the ‘raw’ Labour vote by gender does not tell us exactly which type of Labour male or female voters voted for….).  I realised that I had a vague memory of a group called ‘Mums for Corbyn’, whose existence would add ballast to the argument that women in the parenting demographic may be more likely to identify as Corbyn supporters.  A brief search established that there is indeed such a group, and that they attended the Momentum World Transformed event, in parallel to the main Labour conference.  A member of Mums for Corbyn is quoted in the Times as saying that the group grew up partly in response to ‘lad culture’ on the Left, to make a space for activists who are also mothers.


So we, have Centrist Dad who is at least in part defined through a patronising attitude to younger female Left-wingers, and Mums for Corbyn arising partly as an alternative to lad culture.  Meanwhile we have examples of mothers persuaded to vote Labour by their children, but fathers not so much …. Maybe we have the answer as to why there is no Centrist Mum:  political space is often male-dominated and not infrequently sexist. Why label women if they are not seen as having immutable opinions, or as integral to the culture?



* there are a couple of pre-election articles on persuading grandparents to vote Labour, presumably because over-60s are the most Conservative-inclined of all

Scrutinising the Scrutineers (again) …

12 Sep

I have to take up my pen again, for one more in my occasional series on the composition of membership of parliamentary Select Committees.  Select Committees in the House of Commons have become increasingly powerful bodies, charged with holding government to account.  Select Committees can produce reports based on inquiries into salient topics, and the government is obliged to respond to their recommendations.  So, it’s clear that who sits on these committees matters.

The divvying up of chairs and seats on Select Committees along party lines, indicates that representation of a range of views is crucial to their business.  But other forms of representation matter too.  We all know that Parliament is slouching only slowly towards gender equality, and that the number of MPs from minority ethnic backgrounds still lags diversity in the general population.  In previous blogs I’ve highlighted issues in the composition of the Women and Equalities Committee, and in the gendered nature of membership of Committees in ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ policy areas.  And I’ve blogged about the Science and Technology Committee’s previous work to identify barriers to women’s advancement in science.  And this particular Committee is why I have to blog again today, for this is the membership of the newly elected Science and Technology Committee:

Chair: Norman Lamb; Members: Bill Grant, Darren Jones, Clive Lewis, Stephen Metcalfe, Neil O’Brien, Graham Stringer, Martin Whitfield.

Notice anything?  Go to the top of the class if you said ‘why are there only 7 members, instead of 10 like in the last parliament?’  –  the answer to this I actually don’t know*; but it makes the thing you are more likely to have noticed, all the more perplexing: there are no women. Back in 2015, a collective eyebrow was raised at the Culture, Media and Sports Committee, which was entirely white and male; today twitter (including scientists) is questioning the maleness of the Science and Technology Committee.

Some might be tempted to argue that as Chairs and members are elected from within parliament, surely it’s a question of the best people being chosen by their peers.  But if expertise in the area is a criterion for membership, then this committee is a little thin, boasting only two science graduates.  Moreover, it’s well-established (some useful studies here) that credibility in science is gendered, with men consistently more highly rated for performance and promotion, due to baseline assumptions and unconscious bias around gender and scientific competence.  Representation really does matter.  In spite of increasing success in university entrance and degrees awarded, women are still under-represented in the higher ranks of science, even in majority-female disciplines like medicine.  And as for the shortage of women in fields like computing and engineering, a lot of effort is being put into raising the profile of senior female role models, and into challenging the culture of sectors, which have all too often got a poor record in promoting women and in wider diversity issues.

In the last parliament, the Science and Technology Committee (then boasting several female members) launched a programme to monitor diversity amongst the witnesses called to appear before the Committee in evidence sessions. This was a welcome recognition of the overwhelmingly white and male profile of the scientific elite, and the need to see beyond the familiar faces, into a more diverse reflection of science professions. Also during the last Parliament, the Good Parliament report, on diversity the House, was published.  It noted that membership of Select Committees was frequently unrepresentative of MPs, let alone the wider population, and suggested that single-sex membership should be prohibited, and that Committees should at least be ‘mindful’ of representativeness in their business.  The government has just failed to take up any of the recommendations made by the Women and Equalities Select Committee, for enhancing female representation in parliament.  It is hard to see today’s announcement of an all-male Science and Technology Committee as anything other than a further leap backward for womankind.


*Update: turns out 3 places remain to be filled, although Committee was described as ‘up and running’ this morning – watch this space …

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